With an insider’s eye, Hot Dish tracks the tastiest bits of Minnesota’s political scene and keep you up-to-date on those elected to serve you.

Contributors in Minnesota: Patrick Condon, Baird Helgeson, Patricia Lopez, Jim Ragsdale, Abby Simons, Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Glen Stubbe. Contributors in D.C.: Allison Sherry, Corey Mitchell and Jim Spencer.

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Gay-marriage backers, Philip Morris spent big on lobbying last year

Posted by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Updated: March 18, 2014 - 3:13 PM

A new report finds that both the successful campaign to legalize gay marriage and the unsuccessful campaign to stop cigarette and tobacco tax increases spent more than $1 million on lobbying in Minnesota last year.

The report, released Tuesday by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, shows that the pro-gay marriage Minnesotans United and the Altria Client Services, the parent company for Philip Morris, joined the million dollar spenders for the first time in 2013.

Also appearing on the big spender list -- business groups and the teachers union. With spending of more than $2 million, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce was the single biggest spender on lobbying, as it often is.

Reports to the campaign watchdog agency found that both the Chamber and the Minnesota Business Partnership increased their spending last year. The chamber spent $100,000 more than it had in 2012 and the Business Partnership spent $600,000 more. The Business Partnership spent a total of nearly $1.5 million in 2013.

The two business groups successfully batted back massive proposed business-to-business tax increases in 2013. Some smaller tax increases on businesses transactions with other businesses did pass, however, This year's Legislature is looking at repealing those.

Education Minnesota's lobbying spending came in just behind the business groups, with $1.2 million in spending on lobbying. That, too, constitutes an increase from the year before but is still slightly less than the massive teacher's union spent in 2009.

See all the big spenders in the list below:

Franken wants free school lunch for more low-income students

Posted by: Baird Helgeson Updated: March 17, 2014 - 2:57 PM
U. S. Sen. Al Franken with students in New Hope.

U. S. Sen. Al Franken with students in New Hope.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken is resurrecting his proposal to pay for hot school lunches for students who get reduced-priced meals.

“We should really be committed to making sure kids don’t go hungry at school,” Franken said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "It's just wrong."

Franken had lunch Monday with students at Meadow Lake Elementary School in New Hope, saying research is clear that students learn better when they are well nourished.

A member of the Senate Education Committee, Franken introduced the proposal in 2009 and again in 2010, but the measures never became law.

Right now, students whose parents make between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty lines qualify for reduced-priced lunches of 40 cents per meal. Under the proposal, the taxpayers would pick up the tab for those lunches.

It is not clear how much the proposal would cost or how many students would be affected.

One of Franken’s GOP challengers, Mike McFadden, said the issue highlights the differences between the two.

Franken, he said, looks for a federal solution to something that state leaders are already about to tackle.

“We  should really look to the state or local government,” McFadden said.

State Sen. Julianne Ortman, Franken’s other GOP challenger, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators are rushing passage of a proposal to have the state pick up the tab for students whose parents can’t pay for reduced-price lunches.

Recent news stories outlined how some Minnesota school districts only offered low-income students cheese sandwiches when their meal accounts ran dry.

Dayton and legislators from both parties said that is completely unacceptable.

The Minnesota House voted overwhelmingly to set aside $3.5 million to pay for those lunches. The Senate is expected to follow suit.

Franken said if his measure becomes law, the federal government would take over the state’s share of the lunches.

“Kids don’t do as well when they are hungry,” he said.

 Star Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores

Free lunch bill advances in the House

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: March 6, 2014 - 1:58 PM

If low-income children can't afford a nutritious, hot lunch, the state of Minnesota should pick up the tab, the House Education Finance Committee decided Thursday.

After reports that more than half the public school districts in Minnesota deny hot lunches to students who can't pay for them, the Legislature is rushing to find the $3.5 million it would take to expand the state's free lunch program to the thousands of low-income children enrolled in the reduced-price lunch program.

"This is a great opportunity to, in a bipartisan manner, make the statement that no child shall go hungry in Minnesota because of an inability to pay," said  Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, who sponsored legislation that would let the state cover the cost of expanding free lunches to the thousands of students in the reduced-price lunch program.

A searing report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid last month found that a majority of school districts substitute cold sandwiches, or no lunch at all, when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. Some sent children home with hand stamps or stickers to alert parents that they had come up short. The districts noted  that they often continued to provide the lunches long after the money ran out, which led to large deficits in their own budgets.

Right now, families in the low-income lunch program, pay 40 cents per child per meal, which might not sound like much, but can add up for families and districts alike.

Selcer offered a hypothetical: A single parent with two children, earning $32,000 a year, wouldn't qualify for any other supplemental food assistance, like SNAP, and would be left with a monthly food budget of about $51 a month. Any expense, like a car repair, could erase the family's entire school lunch budget, she said.

"A child who has decided not to have lunch, because he or she knows that mom and dad hasn't paid this month's lunch bill, is more likely to go home and overeat on the starchier foods that the family can afford," Selcer said. "That child is less likely to do well academically at school, as we know that good nutrition plays a huge role in learning."

The legislation would shift the cost of lunch to the state and mandate districts to provide nutritious hot lunches to low-income children, regardless of their parents ability, or willingness to pay.

The committee signed off Selcer's bill by voice vote Thursday morning. It now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee. Gov. Mark Dayton also included the lunch money in his budget request.

Dayton administration rolls out government streamlining initiative

Posted by: Baird Helgeson Updated: March 4, 2014 - 11:03 AM

Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration rolled out a comprehensive government streamlining package Tuesday, outlining more than 1,000 proposed changes to make state services easier and more efficient.

The overhaul seeks changes in every corner of state government, from speeding environmental permitting to making it easier and faster the buy fishing licenses and pay taxes. The initiative also seeks to root out antiquated laws clogging up the books and adding work for state agencies.

Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Chairman Tony Sertich, who is leading the streamlining effort for Dayton’s administration, said state law is filled with antiquated provisions. He noted one state law even has a detailed prescription of exactly who must capture or kill wild boars in the state.

Dayton is staking a lot of political currency on the outcome of the initiative, which he calls “unsession.” He wants legislators to devote a significant amount of time weeding out antiquated or cumbersome laws.

But Dayton is not merely trying to declutter the state law books. He wants to make it easier and less aggravating for consumers of state services, which has been a frequent gripe when dealing with state government.

Dayton is not the first governor to try such an effort, but it is the most concerted one in a long time.

In selecting Sertich to lead the effort, Dayton has tapped a former House Majority Leader with a strong sense of how to get things through the sometimes unruly legislative bodies.

Dayton’s top policy advisers have been meeting regularly and touching base with legislative committee chairs, who will be vital to the success or failure of the effort.

Legislative committees will begin holding hearings on the streamlining measures this week.

Dayton signs off on $20M in heating aid

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: February 28, 2014 - 11:55 AM

Gov. Mark Dayton signed off of $20 million in emergency state aid for low-income heating assistance.

A bitterly cold winter, combined with a propane shortage, has nearly depleted the state's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. When legislators returned to work this week, they rushed to shift the money out of the general fund before the program could run out of money in early March. The measure passed both houses unanimously and moved to the governor's desk on Thursday.

“The amount of propane needed to heat Minnesota homes, farms, and businesses during this exceptionally cold winter and the skyrocketing cost of propane threatened to exhaust our state’s LIHEAP funding and put our citizens out in the cold," Dayton said in a statement, after signing the emergency relief bill into law Friday morning. “We are continuing to do everything possible to keep Minnesotans safe and warm during this emergency.”

Some 180,000 Minnesotans depend on the program pay their heating bills this winter. For many, those bills have been even more burdensome this year as a Midwest propane shortage sent fuel prices skyrocketing. More people applied to the program, needing help with larger and larger home heating bills, and the assistance fund struggled to help them all.

In a statement, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, whose agency oversees the low-income heating assistance program, estimated that nearly 180,000 Minnesota households will receive heating assistance by the end of this winter -- "a 30 percent increase over last year."
The state expanded LIHEAP assistance this year to Minnesotans who earn less than 60 percent of the state median income.That opens the program to a family of four earning less than $52,370 per year, or a household of two earning less than $35,612. The Minnesota Department of Commerce projects that roughly 30,000 to 40,000 newly-eligible households will apply for heating assistance this year.

LIHEAP applicants who heat their homes with propane and heating oil also qualify for up to $1,000 in crisis payments – an increase of $500.

For information about how to apply for heating assistance, contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce website or by calling 800-657-3710. The state also operates a propane hotline for residents who are having trouble obtaining or paying for the fuel: 800-657-3504 in greater Minnesota or 651-297-1304 in the Twin Cities.

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